Henry Flagler and Henry Plant had much in common. Both came from humble American beginnings; were undereducated relative to their future self-made success; adopted New York City as home; made their millions in railroads and steam ships; saw Florida’s potential as a luxury winter getaway; and began developing hotels there for the wealthy leisure classes to enjoy. Even their impressive mustaches were identical.
Last week, Dr. Susan Braden, author of the book The Architecture of Leisure: The Florida Resort Hotels of Henry Flagler and Henry Plant, illuminated Plant and Flagler’s Florida for us during her lecture, part of the Museum’s Samuel M. Nickerson Lecture Series. After the lecture, we caught up with Dr. Braden to learn more about Florida’s healthy climes, the luxurious amenities these developers offered through their resort hotels, and the few of them that still survive today.
So before Flagler and Plant developed it as a winter vacation destination for the wealthy in the 1880s, Florida was known as a destination for only ‘invalids’?
Dr. Susan Braden: Many early guidebooks specifically addressed invalids, especially from the Northeast, encouraging them to come down to enjoy Florida and its weather for their health. Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of them; he came down in 1827 for his lungs. Tuberculosis and consumption were diseases of the time, and those guidebooks promised cures for rheumatism, arthritis, gout, kidney disease—all sorts of illnesses could be cured, supposedly, in the warm winter climate.
So did Flagler just take the idea of the region as a place for healing and promote it to tourists?
Braden: That was actually something that Flagler didn’t like about the area at first. His first trip down was to the Jacksonville area for his first wife’s health, and he felt that Florida was full of consumptives. He thought that if he built resort hotels, with amenities and recreation facilities, that people would come to enjoy themselves. It was really a smart idea on his part. He was on the cutting edge of developing Florida for visitors and tourists.
And so he built the Ponce de León Hotel.
Braden: Yes, in St. Augustine; it was designed by Carrère and Hastings. It was under construction for three years, and just after Flagler started it he decided to add the Alcazar across the street. St. Augustine was a sleepy, quiet little town that catered to invalids, and at first he didn’t want local citizens to know his plans for the Alcazar, because he thought they might object to these two large hotels coming in at once. But as he was building it, he started changing the plans.
What kind of service or lifestyle could you expect if you were wintering at one of these hotels?
Braden: St. Augustine became the winter version of Newport, the American Riviera before Palm Beach replaced it. So you could expect ultra service in both of these hotels. The Ponce de León was the $5 a day hotel, and the Alcazar was less expensive—a $2 a day hotel. The Alcazar proved the more popular, especially with people from St. Augustine because they could use some of the recreational facilities. There was a bathing area with steam baths, a sauna, and a cold plunge. There was a gymnasium with hand bars and medicine balls, and a ballroom on the mezzanine. From the mezzanine, you could be a spectator to the diving shows held in the pool area. There were also bazaars and benefits and all types of other events in the pool area, which they referred to as the casino.
I was so surprised to learn during your lecture that the hotels Flagler went on to build weren’t on the same scale. From the 1890s on, they were built out of wood and had a more pre-fabricated, inexpensive look compared to the grand Ponce de León and Alcazar. Why is that?
Braden: Part of it was economics. It was a lot less expensive to build in wood. The Ponce de León and the Alcazar, which were poured concrete, took three years—from 1885 to 1888. So they were fireproof, yes. But three years was too long to be involved in the design and building process. The Royal Poinciana in Palm Beach was built within a year, and Flagler used in-house employees, McGuire and McDonald, instead of a more notable architectural firm. The “two Macs,” as they were often called, worked for him all their lives. They designed stations and other railroad buildings and housing for Flagler’s staff.
Those later hotels had an architectural style in common, one which also departed from the two flagship hotels. What were some of their recognizable features?
Braden: They’re often described as Colonial Revival and neo-Georgian. Like the buildings in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, they were built with classical symmetry, balance and order. They weren’t as elaborate. In the 1890s, Edith Wharton’s decorating manual, The Decoration of Houses, advocated simplifying things. But they’re still very elegant, with columns and pilasters, and they were spaces that the leisured wealthy class would have recognized as the same kind of style they found in their own elegant homes and country houses.
They also had an exterior color scheme in common, what you called “Flagler Yellow.”
Braden: Yes, Flagler Yellow is sometimes called Colonial Yellow, and I’m sure it has a number of other names too. Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway cars were painted this yellow. Plant actually used yellow for his railroad cars, too—supposedly yellow was a color that didn’t show the dust. But it’s a color associated with Flagler. You would have all of these Flagler Yellow trains arriving at Flagler Yellow hotels, bringing wood for construction, or wicker furniture and rocking chairs. To me, that standardization of color schemes and materials anticipates what a lot of the chain hotels of the 20th century wanted to achieve. He just did it early.
Let’s talk about what Plant and Flagler’s relationship was like. You called them “friendly rivals.”
Braden: Yes, they knew each other and invested together, and they were friends. But there was a rivalry there, too. Flagler opened the Ponce de León and closed on his first season in 1888. It was a pretty successful season, so that summer, Plant started work on the Tampa Bay Hotel. The construction also took him three years, and the hotel opened to the public with a grand gala in February 1891. Plant invited Flagler by telegram, asking Flagler to be at the opening. And Flagler wired back to him: “Where is Tampa?” As if he didn’t know—making the point that Tampa was at that time rather remote. Then, when Flagler finally built a hotel down in Palm Beach, the story goes that when Plant was invited to the opening of the Royal Poinciana, he wired Flagler: “Where’s Palm Beach?”
How did the Tampa Bay Hotel amenities compare to Flagler’s hotels in St. Augustine?
Braden: Plant, like Flagler, wanted to offer a leisured class the amenities, modern technology and recreational facilities similar to what they were used to in their own country homes. So the casino at the Tampa Bay Hotel contained a swimming pool that could be turned into a theater. There was a Japanese pavilion for boats on the river. There was an auxiliary museum building; tennis; golf; and a private railroad spur, something Flagler wasn’t able to do in downtown St. Augustine. They also had hunting dog kennels, allowing guests to go out to hunt wild game.
Both the Ponce de León and Tampa Bay Hotel still remain, both as parts of universities in their respective cities. But of the later hotels, there aren’t many left standing. You did mention there’s a preservation battle going on for the Belleview Hotel, Plant’s second hotel?
Braden: Yes, in Belleair. The Biltmore chain later acquired it, so it’s known as the Belleview Biltmore. But it’s empty now, and is on the block to possibly be demolished. There are some really wonderful people involved in advocating for the preservation of it, but no one has very deep pockets. We’ll see—maybe soon there will be new life breathed into it.